Mitt Romney’s Choice
Last year, President Obama signed into law a health care plan that requires citizens to maintain health insurance. In conservative and Tea Party circles, that “individual mandate” – which gives the government the power to fine Americans who don’t purchase insurance – may be the single most unpopular decision Mr. Obama has made as president.
Mr. Obama wasn’t first to pass an individual mandate. In 2006, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney passed a law that required his state’s citizens to purchase health care insurance.
And that presents Mr. Romney with the single biggest challenge of his likely run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
Mr. Romney has three choices. He can:
1. Defend Unequivocally: Mr. Romney can defend his state’s 2006 health care bill without making any excuses for the bill.
2. Defend Partially: He can defend pieces of his legislation while attempting to distance himself from the more controversial parts.
3. Admit He Was Wrong: Mr. Romney can admit he was wrong regarding the individual mandate and say he has learned from the mistake. Problematically for Mr. Romney, this option opens him up to the recurring charge that he is a “flip-flopper.”
Mr. Romney’s approach so far has been to partially defend his bill. He’s made the case that his law in Massachusetts is different than President Obama’s, since states have the right to enact a mandate whereas the Federal Government doesn’t. He’s said, “Our experiment wasn’t perfect – some things worked, some didn’t, and some things I’d change.”
But positioning himself in the middle leaves him vulnerable to attacks from both sides. His likely 2012 rivals, including Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee, have denounced “RomneyCare.” And President Obama has offered purposefully unhelpful compliments about Romney’s approach to health care.
So What Should Romney Do?
The 2008 primary bids of John McCain and Hillary Clinton offer some guidance for Mr. Romney.
In June 2007, John McCain was polling in single digits in Iowa. His candidacy was largely regarded as dead, mostly as a result of his support for immigration reform – which was wildly unpopular among the GOP base. McCain dropped his support for the bill bearing his name, and the immigration issue receded in importance as primary voters went to the polls. He went on to win the Republican nomination.
During her failed attempt to win the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton rejected several opportunities to apologize for her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. Her position was counter to views of the Democratic base, and the issue remained a top priority for Democratic primary voters. She lost her bid for the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Romney has two choices, both fraught with risks.
He can continue defending his health care law in the hopes that the issue becomes less important to primary voters. But barring a big international or domestic event, that seems unlikely.
His better choice is to disown his Massachusetts plan, calling it well-intentioned but wrong. Like John McCain, he should do it early in the campaign cycle (now) to take some of the charge out of the issue. Both 2008 examples (McCain and Hillary) suggest that ideological purity – even in the face of a position change – is more important than ideological consistency.